From an incorrigible New Year enthusiast
It is ritualistic for us to begin the year on an optimistic note. It could be because the year left behind was so terrible that we can't think it can get any worse, and things can only get better after hitting rock bottom. Right? Not if it was a year like 2021, when we actually believed the Great Plague of 2020 was over and we would go back to the way things were. Some delusion that was!
But enough of this morbid thinking. Just look at our brand new shiny metro rail that is about to transform our debilitated transport system – fingers crossed – and make it difficult for Uttara residents to make traffic an excuse for being late for work.
The new year is going to be better, we whisper to ourselves, even as the doomsayers give us the grim scenario of all the baggage of 2022 that will be carried over – a global financial crisis, no real timeline for the end of the Ukraine war, fuel shortages, food scarcity, abnormally chilling months for the west and sweltering days for the east, more authoritarianism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, violence, rise in brutal crimes, deadlier variants – you get the drift. Yes, we can predict the miseries that await.
Does this mean we just throw our hands up in the air and give up? Of course not. We have to find ways to keep us buoyant even in the roughest waters. So let's think of some out-of-the-box ways to tackle even the most formidable of problems, specifically those that are relevant to us Bangladeshis.
They say the dearth of foreign exchange next year may continue to be a killjoy for import dependent businesses. Our recommendation to the government is to get "certain people" in public service to sell a few of their mansions and malls in all the Begum Paras around the globe and a few of the shell companies in places like the Cayman Islands, and just make "contributions" to depleting forex reserves. Just to show how patriotic they are. They can bring the dollars back the way they siphoned-sorry-sent-it – we won't look. PK Halder can advise.
Speaking of financial advice, 2023 should also be the year we train a few thousand Specialised Financial Planners for people-who-do-not-know-what-to-do-with-so-much-money. These are the business "typhoons" and their entitled offspring – otherwise known as the filthy rich – who have bought up chunks of the city, including waterbodies and wetlands, through their "art of persuasion" with the help of their weight-lifting, gun-toting bouncers. They have already bought their seventh BMW, taken so many foreign trips they are just bone-tired with jetlag, brought in Russian dancers for their niece's wedding, become citizens of the most expensive country in the world, and still cannot get rid of all those bundles gathering dust in the closet.
This is where these specialists come in to create investment portfolios for "brownie point projects", kind of like the CSR of the Obscenely Rich Person (ORP). These could be in the form of donations to existing (and real) charities, state-of-the-art hospitals that are affordable for the poor, scholarship programmes for needy students, homes for the impoverished elderly, boarding schools for street children, and so on. Again, apart from acquiring an invisible halo on social media platforms, they will be actually doing something in the public's interest for a change. Plus, this might give them tax breaks (from the taxes they never paid), as well as priceless political mileage in case they become election candidates.
A major thorn in the hip of our financial sector is the monster named "non-performing loan" that has reached an impressive Tk 1,343.96 billion. Our banking culture of yore has always nourished individuals who have taken out loans with the idea that banks are like overindulgent parents absentmindedly giving out generous allowances that, of course, are not supposed to be repaid. Thus, the grand lifestyles and noble endeavours taken up by these elegant bank robbers, who have not had to spend a single day in jail for running off with people's precious deposits. It reminds one of the suavity of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who were portrayed as sexy heroes rather than hardened criminals.
The problem is, during the current financial haemorrhaging, defaulted loans are becoming open wounds for banks where liquid assets are drying up like the Teesta in the winter.
It is time for an intervention.
Rescheduling loans or writing off chunks of the amount have not worked, so we need to delve deeper into the issue. It is time to invest in rehab centres for loan defaulters. Treat loan defaulting as an addiction and illness that requires months of counselling and consistent weaning off the habit of taking a loan without any intention of repaying it. Perhaps teams of rural women who are members of microcredit programmes and have excellent credit payment records can work as mentors.
But money matters are not the only thing we should work on – 2023 is an election year and blood is likely to be spilt. To minimise the overspill in emergency rooms and heaven forbid, morgues, some diffusing mechanisms have to be employed. Law enforcers, and Chhatra and Jubo League members, especially, must be required to take "anger management courses" well ahead of the election date. This may include meditational yoga to calm the agitated mind, and Zumba dancing to work off the aggressive energy. Members of the opposition, meanwhile, can be given training in achieving a Zen state in which nothing can provoke them into retaliating, not even with those ubiquitous brick chips. All these services are also available on apps.
The wise men and women are saying that 2023 will be a "make or break" year for Bangladesh. As ordinary folk, we too must chip in to make everything great again. Keeping up with tradition, we must adopt all the austerity measures asked of us with a brave and dazzling smile. We must eat with gusto, a little less rice and lentils, cheerfully pay more taxes on our life savings, and sleep fitfully in a smaller apartment while paying a few times more for electricity, gas, school fees and diagnostic tests. We must learn not to stress so much about these "little" financial hiccups. By the end of December, we will be looking forward to another New Year – when everything will be newer, shinier and better than the year left behind.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is joint editor at The Daily Star.